It’s been over 30 years since actress Lonette McKee debuted on the silver screen in a skintight red dress, performed a seductive number entitled “Giving Him Something He Can Feel,” and helped to forever cement the musical film Sparkle, as a classic. Now with anticipation mounting for the remake, which will be released this summer, McKee is reemerging into the spotlight. One of her plans includes launching a “Sparkle Live" concert tour in New York City on August 23rd at Aaron Davis Hall, featuring herself and original film co-leads Irene Cara and Dawn Smith.
The project is one of many which has kept the multitalented McKee quite busy in the years following the iconic flick. With a Tony nomination, numerous TV credits and an enduring career as a musician, McKee has managed to reinvent herself and survive the Hollywood machine.
EBONY speaks with McKee as she talks why her career nearly stalled after Sparkle, why the state of Black films is not much better than it was in the 1970’s, her true feelings on being shut out of the original film’s soundtrack in favor of Aretha Franklin and more.
EBONY: After all these years why do you think Sparkle still resonates with audiences today?
LM: It was a project where all the elements aligned to create a classic and that’s what happens with quality projects. We don’t have a whole lot of quality projects made, especially for Black films.
EBONY: Were you involved in the remake?
EBONY: Would you have liked to have been involved in the project?
LM: Let’s put it this way, if they contacted me I would have been there for them and shown up. But it doesn’t matter to me whether they called or didn’t. I don’t care. I got my own projects going on. One of our original producers is doing the remake so it is in very good hands and Salim Akil and Mara Brock Akil are fabulous. They didn’t need us hanging around their set.
EBONY: What feelings came over you watching Whitney Houston in the trailer?
LM: She is so wonderful. I'm very honored it was her last thing that she did. I think she will be brilliant and it’s the perfect swan song. I think it will be a beautiful farewell to her and it would have been a comeback, but she never left far as I'm concerned.
EBONY: After Sparkle, many pinned you to be the breakout star to reach mainstream success. However in a People Magazine interview you stated that after the film’s success you went “wild” and “experimented with coke for a year.” Do you attribute that period with affecting the direction of your career?
LM: I have a whole theory about people that make it or do something really big when they are in their early 20’s. First of all people are not fully developed in their early 20’s. None of us have a real grip on our own lives and our own personalities. So [my career] after Sparkle,wasn’t a product of my own doing as much it was a commentary on the state of where Black projects have been since then and still are today. Everybody said I would break out, but you can’t break out unless you’re offered decent film roles. The only roles I was offered is girlfriends and wives. Nobody came to me with projects as strong as the Sparkle character. Plus I started out in the music industry and that was always my first love. I thought I’d make it as a musician like Alicia Keys. I was Alicia Keys before Alicia Keys but there wasn’t a place for me at the time in the industry. They didn’t know if I was a singer, writer, musician or actor. I said ‘Why can't I do all of it?’ In that time they said ‘make up your mind.’ So my career went back and forth between the music scene and what few acting roles they were offering Black folks.
EBONY: Have you noticed any progress with the state of Black films since then?
LM: I've seen some progress because people like me capable of writing and that are multifaceted are writing now and wanting to direct their own film projects. I am fundraising for the film I wrote called “Dream Street,” which is a beautiful ensemble character driven dramatic film. But the real travesty is that it is still primarily funded by big corporate white money and they are still just as racist and just as reluctant to fund intelligent Black product as they were 30 years ago. So in that respect not much has really changed.
EBONY: In addition to writing screenplays what other projects are you working on?
LM: I thought it’d be great to co-produce and write a Sparkle live concert starring the original people from [the film.] I am thrilled about it. When I found out about the remake I said this is a great time to get in touch with the original cast members and see if they are on-board to do a live concert version. We will also take it to Detroit, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington D.C. Chicago, Atlanta and maybe Texas. I am writing a bit of banter in between the songs but it will be a concert performance of the music in Sparkle.
EBONY: I think fans will be very happy to hear the originals do the songs live. Were you disappointed not to appear on the soundtrack?
LM: For me to know Aretha Franklin did the soundtrack, I loved it and did not have a problem with it. Of course in retrospect we know the audience was so hyper-devoted to the original and would have loved to hear us do an album or CD on it. It is what it is and I was very thrilled that Aretha did it, frankly.
EBONY: What was it like working with Curtis Mayfield during that period?
LM: He was wonderful. Curtis wrote all the tracks and set all the tracks in keys before he heard any of us sing. This was most of ours first movie. So what they did was fly us in to his private studio and I thought it was to set the key. In reality he had already laid the tracks so most of those keys for me were too high. He was not gonna change those keys at all so I had to figure out how to sing them even though they weren’t comfortable to me.
EBONY: Do you maintain a close relationship with the cast?
LM: We all remained in contact but we are all scattered around. So I can’t say we remained close but we all still love each other. The experience is still fresh in our minds. It was everybody’s first film so it creates a bond.
EBONY: I think the beauty of your story is that you continue to dream and pursue those dreams similar to the theme of Sparkle.
LM: We have to especially in these times. We are all living in very hard times and they are particularly hard for people of color I really think it is important we have some dreams we aspire to. You have to set a goal where you want to go before you know where you’re going. I feel like we all are entitled to dream big and eventually one day they will happen.